Sunday 22 September 2019

Billy Keane: 'Fast internet is the new canal, new railway, new road - deliver it and we'll see rural Ireland thrive'

Keane's Kingdom

(stock photo)
(stock photo)
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

I am all for the Government's plan to bring broadband to all of the people, all of the time.

The bean counters are ruling the world. They know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. The story now must be the story of the creative and the brave. Those who made the rules of finance have ruined our world several times over.

It is always easier to destroy rather to create. Cuts are the last refuge of the unimaginative. The Government has taken a risk. Big plans often take longer to implement, and cost more. But they get done. The National Broadband Plan may even be foolish in parts. Some will say it is a waste of money to bring broadband miles in off the road to a one-off house at the end of a boreen. It is only fair play and nothing was ever built by sensible people.

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Robert Watt is the secretary general of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Most of you never heard of him until this week. Now he is the guru. Mr Watt said the cost of the broadband plan was excessive. There will be risks, he said. He's right. But life is about taking risks.

Mr Watt says the plan to bring broadband to every home in the country "has questionable benefits". To be fair, Mr Watt had a job to do and he did it honestly without fear or favour. Mark Griffin is the Department of Communications secretary general. He is all for the plan. "The availability of ubiquitous high-speed broadband will bring significant benefits in the areas of education, e-health, tourism, regional development, and social inclusion," he said.

Kids in rural Ireland who do not have broadband are being victimised. Education is so inextricably linked to online learning that it will be impossible for the country children to get on. Never underestimate our love of learning. When I was a boy, Ms Dowling put her two sons Tom and Maurice up on the bar of her bike and brought the boys 8km to the school in all weather. They are two of the finest men, but they were at a disadvantage because they were country lads. It takes ages to get to and from school as it is. Most country children are up at 6am and do not get home until after 6pm. And then there's no broadband when they get home.

Lives will be saved and the treatment of people by doctors online will save millions. Bookings can be made easily by tourists. Emails can be replied to immediately. Business can be done from the old turf shed with customers in China. And yes, people can have fun too. They can watch Netflix, play games and the lonely can make friends or find someone to share their lives with.

Put a price on that.

Of course, there are flaws in the plan. It will go over budget. There will be major problems. But we must look at the destination, not the journey.

We have criticised the Government here over the closure of post offices and Garda stations. We have been critical of the neglect of children who have had to pay for operations when the State would not help.

This plan is brave and it will free all of our people. It seems strange that the most vocal opponents of the plan are those who have been consistently attacking the Government for not spending more money.

More are wrapped in a suffocating cling film of ideology. They are opposed because, God forbid, some big company will make money.

Those against it on ideological grounds seem to want the private consortium to build the network for free and then give it back to the State for half nothing. It's not as if there are dozens of companies lined up to fight for the contract.

Ministers Richard Bruton and Patrick O'Donovan insisted no man or woman, or boy or girl, would be left behind. Our Taoiseach is backing the plan. He is a man of vision who sees the value as opposed to the cost.

There is only one show in town. No other business is in the bidding. The only way to get broadband in two or three miles in off the road was to cut some slack. If it was up to some, we would still be reading by candlelight.

We could be arguing forever. The Opposition seems to want to start all over again. There is no perfect plan. How long will it take to make a new one and to bring in new bidders? Years? Decades? Never? In the meantime there will be no one left in remote places to take the broadband.

Are they not as entitled to live in their own place and their own country as anyone else? How can you put a price on the love of home and fatherland? And will we see yet another generation of boys and girls have to leave the place of their birth? Broadband allows us the scope to ride out recessions by changing tack. Ireland needs to have that freedom.

Our vision for rural Ireland must be of one of families staying in the home where their fathers and mothers slaved. Brains will win now. Broadband is the new canal, the new railway, the new road.

Our Government has taken a huge risk but there will be a massive payback. This is our only hope of success in rural Ireland. No one seems to have mentioned Dublin is too big.

The off balance-sheet benefits will be multiple, glorious and wondrous. Schools will stay open. Pubs and shops will thrive. The GAA will be able to field 15-a-side. The emigrants and the city dwellers will come to live in rural Ireland. Those living at home will stay at home. This has to be our stated aim and our national goal. I believe in our people. We will thrive once we are at home.

I met the poet Brendan Kennelly on the beach of Ballybunion a few years back. Brendan looked out at the wonder of it all. "There Bill," he said, "is the Atlantic Ocean, and not a furze bush between here and America." So it will be with broadband for all, there will be no boundaries or distances between us and the rest of the world.

Our biggest export will be our knowledge, not our people. The Irish monks illuminated the world with their manuscripts in the Dark Ages and helped keep learning alive. Never did the world need us more. Our nation of talkers and storytellers can save civilisation yet again. Show me that on your balance sheet.

Our methods of assessing the benefits, financial or otherwise, of all aspects of our lives are crude, limited and unimaginative.

Now is the hour. Be brave. Just do it. Broadband for all is not a project. Broadband for all is a civil right.

Irish Independent

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